Sarah Paulson Talks Auditioning, Playing Unsympathetic Characters, and the Women Who Inspire Her

She’s played a witch, a psychic, and a woman with two heads, but at Steppenwolf’s 2018 Women in the Arts luncheon, held Jan. 22 at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, award-winning actress Sarah Paulson (“The People vs. OJ Simpson,” “American Horror Story,” “Twelve Years a Slave”) played the part of “honoree.”

In an onstage, far-ranging conversation with her longtime friend and Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, Paulson was witty, warm, and articulate. The history-making actress — the first to win all five major TV awards — discussed her art, her process, her formative years, and the importance of mentorship in her life. Here, we share some excerpts from this very special event.

Sarah Paulson with Make It Better's Julie Chernoff and Brooke McDonald
Make It Better Dining Editor Julie Chernoff, Sarah Paulson, and Make It Better Editor in Chief Brooke McDonald (Photo by Kyle Flubacker.)

On when she knew she wanted to be an actress: In the womb.

On why she’s had such success in recent years: I think it has everything to do with Ryan Murphy. Before “American Horror Story,” it’s not that I hadn’t worked before, but things seemed to bloom from there, opportunities started to come my way. I think that’s partly because every single year on that series I’m playing a different character, so audiences don’t get attached to one particular type of thing I did, I wasn’t playing a particularly beloved character that they liked, and I think that’s part of it. And I think the world is changing a little bit that way for women, a little bit, a tiny bit.

On whether it was her decision to be a character actor: I think my opinion about it never played into it. There was no master plan, no design; people will say, “God, that role, and those choices you made.” It wasn’t that I had an array of choices to make, it was more, this is what I’ve got to do.

On an unsympathetic part in “Twelve Years a Slave”: I have some friends; quite fancy famous girls, who said, “I refused to audition for that part. That woman was too evil.” As if that would mess with their brand! Maybe that’s something that separates us, because it never occurred to me not to try and get that job because I’d be playing someone who was a deplorable human being, someone that people couldn’t relate to. I just wanted to play the part. It seemed like a very interesting acting challenge to play someone you couldn’t connect to at all. So that’s how I decide what I’m going to do, not whether people are going to want to see my movies.

On why she still auditions for parts: I prefer to do it that way. I hate walking on set having been offered a job, because I feel like I don’t know myself what I’m capable of, and I feel this constant fear that they’re thinking, “Whoops! I sure liked her in that one thing, and we thought it would lend itself to this particular thing, and maybe it didn’t.” If I earn something, I have a much greater sense of feeling like I belong somewhere. I know that I fought for it, sometimes very hard.

On being mentored by great actresses like Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, and the late Jill Clayburgh: They’re all women I worked with who played my mother. Paging Dr. Freud! I remember one time I called Diane Keaton, I was maybe going to hire a manager or get a lawyer or something, and I had nothing to manage, and nothing to lawyer about. She was so adamant that I not crowd my artistic vision with the business part of it. And I was young enough to have that resonate with me so I don’t have a lawyer or manager even now. I did get very lucky that way, that some women I work with, I not only admire their working life, but the way they conduct themselves, their independence, their tenacity, their generosity. I know why I was drawn to them and why I want to spend time with them but I’m not sure what drew them to me.

On her star turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”: I haven’t watched it. I’m terrified. I think it was the thing people responded to the most. I’m hypercritical of my work, always have been. I was afraid for it to be the barometer for my happiness for the thing. People seemed to be excited about it, and I didn’t want to tear that down with my own harsh eye. Since then, I haven’t seen anything that I’ve done. I’m embracing that. It’s not healthy for me to watch myself. There are certain things I do that are MY mannerisms, and I get so angry with myself that I couldn’t obliterate my personhood entirely when playing a part.

On what women inspire her: You know, given what we’re experiencing now culturally, it’s an extraordinary thing that all of us in the arts have a great platform, an opportunity to have a megaphone and speak loudly. But the people whom I’m most concerned with having an actual impact are the people who don’t have a voice. I think women in general. I don’t think there’s a particular person who’s most inspiring, but any female who’s of service to those around her is an incredible inspiration to me.

On advice for actors pursuing their craft: Allow your timetable to be what your timetable is. Sometimes we get very, very focused on an arbitrary moment when it should be decided that if you’re going to have the career you want, you should have done this and this by now, or it’s never going to happen … so I guess I’d say, keep your nose in your own book; march to the sound in your own head. Get out of your own way. There’s a lot of noise around when you start to think that it has to look like some particular thing that we recognize, that we’ve been told it needs to be. And I think I’m proof that that is not true.


Steppenwolf’s Women in the Arts Luncheon is held annually to raise funds for Steppenwolf Education, which includes Steppenwolf for Young Adults, the School at Steppenwolf, and the Professional Leadership Programs. Visit to support this programming.

Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.


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